Demolition man

RICHARD OFFEN has been busy since retiring from Heritage Perth last year.

As well as giving countless talks on WA history, the former executive director has just released his new book Lost Perth, a fond tribute to the buildings we’ve sadly lost over the past 130 years.

It’s well documented that the demolition-friendly 1960s and 70s claimed many of Perth’s historic buildings, but Mr Offen reveals the build-demolish cycle stretches back to the 1880s.

He notes the first cultural demolition happened way before any building was pulled down: “The displacement of the Aboriginal people, who until that time had enjoyed unbroken access to the land, is perhaps the first loss that should be acknowledged in this history”.

The earliest significant building to be demolished was the first government house in 1887.

Described as being designed in a “well proportioned but rather stark form of classical architecture,” the columned house was unbearably warm in summer and icy in winter.

When WA governor Arthur Kennedy arrived in 1855 he was thoroughly unimpressed and a board of inquiry was set up that found the carpentry was so poor “that it would be much more advisable to erect a new building than to attempt to repair the present one”.

• Richard Offen with his new book Lost Perth. Photo by Steve Grant

The present government house was built, and the old one limped on as a private residence until its demolition in 1887. There were other early demolitions: St George’s Church was pulled down in 1891 and Alpha Cottage, the first private residence on the sandy track that was St George’s Terrace, was razed around 1896.

“Certainly in the 60s there was the protest about the removal of the Barracks, there was the fight to save His Majesty’s Theatre and the Palace Hotel, but before that people had no compunction: If it wasn’t fit for service, you just knocked it down and built something better,” Mr Offen told the Voice.

“They didn’t have the—and I’m loath to use the word—sentimentality about buildings that we have today. They were far more pragmatic.”

Despite protests and our growing fondness of the past, Mr Offen notes the demolitions continue to this day: The Michelides Tobacco Factory on Roe Street was knocked down in 2014, and the Loreto Bell Tower on the corner of William and Francis Streets went just last year.

But the history buff is sanguine about our future heritage: Through the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the rate of loss slows, and he’s encouraged by changing attitudes.

He closes the foreword in Lost Perth by saying; “we now have different attitudes and the evident interest in our past and our architectural history is, to me, a great encouragement that the decisions of our future will be better informed.

“From the demise of these iconic places we can learn; if history is for nothing else, it is for guiding our future.”

Lost Perth is out now “in all good book shops”.

by DAVID BELL

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